Bo Wilson’s “The Boatwright” is Coming-of-Age Meets Mid-Life Crisis

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    The Boatwright is much more than a story about building a boat. The play, running at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre through March 4, makes use of generational perspectives and challenges to hold a mirror up to audience members of all ages.

    David Bridgewater as Ben Callaway in “The Boatwright.” (Photo by Bill Sigafoos)

    This play is the combination of a coming-of-age story for college student Jamie Watson, who returns to his suburban home after being asked to leave film school, and a mid-life crisis of sorts for Ben Callaway, a retired and widowed state trooper who plans to sail solo in the Atlantic ocean – after building his vessel from scratch. Actor David Bridgewater portrays this multi-faceted retiree and widow, Ben Callaway, with skill. The levels that are behind the former Kansas State Trooper are powerful, relatable feelings of a retiree with nothing but time. A man who has never allowed himself to feel these emotions while working with the police, Ben must confront them in the wake of his wife’s death. And for Jamie, played by recent VCU grad Tyler Stevens, the issues plaguing an increasing number of young adults are radiant in his world. Mental illness is a challenge to portray on stage, but Stevens is able to respectfully and realistically highlight its nuances and weave the personal issues of the character into the play’s larger meaning.

    Tyler Stevens as Jamie Watson in “The Boatwright.” (Photo by Bill Sigafoos)

    Playwright Bo Wilson of Richmond has graced the Firehouse Theatre with this script before, but only for a public table read more more than five years ago. The evolution of this work, according to Wilson, did not entirely change the script as one would expect. “I think that having time to marinate, this story was not affected by the passage of time.” Wilson’s work in creating this relationship between these men of two separate generations was finely tuned on the details of building their dynamic, as Ben is reluctant to change, and Jamie is reliant on a change to give him hope in life. “I think any good play is a journey, and using the boat as a tool to represent a physical journey is a strong way in this play to emphasize the work of these characters,” Wilson said in a phone interview.

    As a two-actor and single-set play, one would expect the artistry to come alive through the script. On this night, it was not just the script, but in many ways the setting that elevated this performance. The stage’s construction of a typical middle-American garage, fitted with every realistic detail including live power tools, becomes part of the production itself. As much as the acting is a narrative force, audiences would be remiss to overlook the effort put in to the set design. Kudos to Director Gary C. Hopper and Rich Mason for scenic design.

    As an artistic choice, this play does include a unique way of melding the motif of the film into the actual performance. Throughout the play, there are scene breaks that allow the actors to set the stage, or show the passage of time. But during these breaks is the inclusion of a projection of various pre-recorded “film clips,” meant to be seen as snippets of the movie that Jamie the filmmaker is creating. The video is a strong addition to the show as a whole and captures the idea of a multimedia, confessional experience that these men share in the garage.

    This show juggles heavy themes, and would not be suitable for children younger than about seventeen. However, The Boatwright provides adult audiences with a performance that sparks a conversation, inciting thoughtful analysis and reflection between younger and older generations. For tickets and showtimes, visit Firehouse Theatre.